• Sophia Naylor

Why the Shell Is Humpty Dumpty an Egg?

"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again."


Why do we think he is an egg!? Are we collectively terrible at understanding nursery rhymes, or is there something deeper at play? The earliest known version of the nursery rhyme is credited to Samuel Arnold's "Juvenile Amusements" in 1797. In the 1800s, American actor George L. Fox popularized Humpty Dumpty in pantomime theater, and later Lewis Carroll solidified Humpty-Dumpty-as-an-Egg in "Through the Looking Glass," the sequel to his hit success "Alice in Wonderland." (Illustrated by John Tenniel.)


That's how Humpty Dumpty got famous, but it doesn't explain his egginess. I've helpfully broken down the leading theories into three categories: Terrible Ideas, The OK Idea, and The Good Idea. And I've also included a couple bonus facts!


Terrible Ideas


Humpty Dumpty was a cannon


This is one is the darling of clickbait articles across the internet. A cursory search of "why is Humpty Dumpty an egg" leads to article after article espousing that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon. Mind blown! Even newspapers have gotten in on the action. Except this is a terrible theory.


An even bigger question to "why is he an egg," is why do people think he's a cannon? Here goes the story:


In 1648, during the English Civil War, Colchester was under siege. "Humpty Dumpty" was a cannon on top of a wall defending the city. Our dear anthropomorphic cannon (manned by a fellow named "One-Eyed Thompson") was blown off the wall by the attackers and no one could get it back up. (An earlier cannon-myth was set in Gloucester in which cannon Humpty Dumpty was on the attacking side of the conflict.)


As folklorist Iona Opie put it, “This is ingenuity for ingenuity’s sake."


Who is originally to blame for this idea? It appears that history turned into a joke which turned into legend which turned into clickbait. Using Rushworth’s “Historical Collections” as source material, in 1956 Professor David Daube wrote a satirical history of "Humpty Dumpty" for The Oxford Magazine. The joke was sealed into legend with Albert Jack's 2008 book "Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes." Jack decided to put his own spin on it, claiming that he had found two additional verses in an "old dusty library, [in] an even older book." Jack's book is also where we get the delightful character of "One-Eyed Thompson:"


"In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight

When England suffered the pains of state

The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town

Where the King’s men still fought for the crown


There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall

A gunner of deadliest aim of all

From St. Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired

Humpty-Dumpty was its name


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…"


Sounds like a nursery rhyme to me, and definitely not a guy fabricating history.


I must also credit The BS Historian's article, which gives a fantastic in-depth account of the cannon theory and why it is, well, BS.


Humpty Dumpty refers to King Richard III


The rhyme has king right there in line three, what can't be wrong about this? Like the terrible cannon idea, this is tied to a battle. Because King Richard III is depicted with a hunchback, the idea is that he looks a little like an egg. I know, the resemblance is astounding. As for his horses and men unable to put King Richard III together again, the explanation is that he was defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485. This theory was posited by author Katherine Elwes Thomas and adopted by Robert Ripley of the astute historical text "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!"


The OK Idea


Humpty Dumpty may have originally just been a kid


While we are twisting ourselves into knots about the meaning of this egg business, we've forgotten the possibility that perhaps Humpty Dumpty wasn't an egg to begin with, and his status as a foodstuff came later. In 1877, Walter Crane's "Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes" illustrates Humpty Dumpty as a boy. While a possible interpretation, it's much less exciting.



The Good Idea


Humpty Dumpty is a riddle


Humpty Dumpty is a riddle, and the solution is an egg: (There's one for the pedants: Is it still a riddle if we all know the answer?)


Why a riddle? Is this, as Opie put it, "ingenuity for ingenuity’s sake?" Not so. Opie writes (with her husband Peter) in "The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" that, in the 17th century, "humpty dumpty" referred to a drink of brandy boiled with ale. (This nursery rhyme just became 21+.) In the 18th century, "humpty dumpty" got a second meaning; it became reduplicative slang for a short and clumsy person. (Perhaps a person who drank too much brandy boiled with ale.) This meaning probably served as misdirection to the real solution. All the king's horses and all the king's men can probably help up a clumsy drunk, but if an egg rolls off a wall, even they can't do anything but make a breakfast scramble.


There are similar riddles in other languages: the French "Boule Boule," the Swedish and Norwegian "Lille Trille," and the delightful German "Humpelken-Pumpelken."


Bonus Facts!


Humpty Dumpty in court


Humpty Dumpty has been cited in hundreds of United States judicial decisions, including two Supreme Court cases (TVA v. Hill and Zschernig v. Miller).


Humpty Dumpty as a tool for science


According to Wikipedia, "Humpty Dumpty has been used to demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics" by providing a metaphor for entropy: "After his fall and subsequent shattering, the inability to put him together again is representative of this principle." It doesn't cite who uses Humpty Dumpty to demonstrate entropy—except that by this claim the author has demonstrated entropy, so, touché, Wikipedia.

© 2019-20 by Sophia Naylor